By Marc Audet
The rain fell for two days, mingling clay, sand, and chalk into an ankle deep layer of mud that grabbed onto the boots of the men as they walked through the trenches. The rats scurried everywhere, feeding on spilt soup, licking empty beef tins, and nibbling shreds of viscera scattered by shell bursts. In the quiet space between salvoes, flies hummed as if bored, swarming over corpses abandoned to rot away in no-man’s-land.
The preliminary bombardment had gone on all week. A million shells flew overhead, wounding the land; no one slept.
Captain Henry Lawrence of the 56th Division stood behind the shield on the parapet, training his binoculars on Gommecourt Hill a quarter mile to the east. The German 2nd Army captured the hill over a year ago. His orders were to take out the bunker so that the first London and second Eastborne units could move in and secure control of the Gommecourt region, effectively splitting the enemy front.
The shelling had left the terrain pitted with holes. Lawrence saw the weak point. The stronghold, an ugly concrete scab disfiguring the landscape, had two firing ports. One covered the fields to the north, and the other guarded the southwest rise leading up to it. If they were to charge from both the south and west, the gunners would be distracted, forced to sweep in long arcs from left to right, wasting firepower. His troops would have enough time to scamper from hole to hole. The splintered remains of a few vintage oaks might provide some cover along the way. The plan would work if he just had enough men. He had sent a request to Command three days ago, but so far, no response. He put down the binoculars. The old scar twinged on his right side, the legacy of a childhood accident when he fell on a rusty hoof pick in the stable. If the 56th captured the hill, they could break the stalemate and change the course of the war. And maybe this year, finally, they could all be home for Christmas.
He stepped down into the trench and went back to his field office, a hole in the ground with a dirt floor, a leaky roof, and covered by sandbags that offered some protection from shrapnel. Lieutenant Draper sat at his desk, watching the telegraph.
“Any word, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir. Nothing.”
Lawrence took out his pocket watch, the one his grandfather had given him when he graduated from Oxford the summer before the war broke out. He opened the front cover. The inscription tempus fugit, engraved in a florid script, stared back at him. It was dusk. Time was running out. He made his way back to his barracks. Draper retook his seat and waited.
Just before midnight, the telegraph came to life with a message relayed through Command at Valvion. Draper wrote out the message in block letters and rushed out to the barracks.
“Good news Captain, a platoon is on the way.”
Lawrence squinted to read the script in the dim light.
From 37TH DIV Amiens.
Platoon reserves dispatched.
Lieutenant GW Kenyon-Slaney CO.
He stared at the name: Kenyon-Slaney. That can’t be! George William Kenyon-Slaney recently engaged to Emily, Henry’s younger sister. He knew GW since their school days at Winchester. Emily and GW had met in Oxford. GW was at Christ Church, reading medicine. What the hell was he doing in the 37th? He was supposed to be stationed at Richmond Red Cross Hospital in London, according to Emily’s last letter. Henry pounded his fist on the desk, knocking over his inkwell, the ink bleeding onto his half-written letter.
Draper froze to attention. The captain rarely lost his temper.
“Everything all right, sir?”
“Of course, there’s a bloody war going on. Finally, we have reinforcements.”
Draper saluted and left.
Henry waited alone, unsleeping, dreading the day fast approaching. The eastern horizon glowed with the dawning light. He checked his watch again, then snapped the cover shut. A solitary blackbird started to sing.
The sun rose as his scouts returned with their maps showing the breaks in the barbed wire. The artillery had worked, perhaps too well. The way to the south flank was clear. GW would lead his platoon up the hill in keeping with the plan.
Henry should have been pleased. With the reinforcements, he had a good shot at victory. Some men would die, the bitter cost of ending the war. What price would Emily pay? Now, it was too late to change anything.
On Gommecourt Hill, the German gunners were ready and waiting. At seven-thirty, a flare flashed overhead. Henry blew the whistle, giving the command to go over the top. He heard the faint crackle as the machine guns started to fire and watched GW lead his men, boys really, out of the trench, inching forward, making their way to the hill, never to see another dawn.